Inquiring Readers: Yes, you read the title correctly. Author Diana Birchall has resurrected her excellent advice column on behalf of Mrs. Elton. A number of years ago Laurel Ann Nattress, blogger of Austenprose and editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It, co-posted on my other blog, Jane Austen Today. We both sent letters to Mrs. Elton/Diana, who replied with cheeky aplomb. (Read the archived columns here). The column entitled “Mrs. Elton Sez” once ran weekly. The renamed column will be featured monthly.
Agony Aunts, or advice columnists, were not unknown in the 18th and 19th centuries and have enjoyed a long tradition. One imagines that Mrs. Elton would have no difficulty dispensing her advice in print. And now, without further ado …
Dear Mrs. Elton,
I am writing to inform you that I have identified you as the Agony Aunt in The Highbury Monthly Gazette. The means by which I came to this conclusion I shall keep to myself. Suffice it to say that your audaciousness knows no bounds. To brazenly appoint oneself as the judge of others and the arbiter of taste and deportment in an insignificant village when all one has done is marry a mere parson is the height of vanity. As his wife it is your DUTY to be a MODEL of humility and Christian love. I command you to take lessons from Mrs. Collins, also a parson’s wife, whose modesty and sense of duty have set her up as a PARAGON of propriety.
I am most seriously displeased with your presumption and shall not end this missive with my good wishes.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh
My dear Lady Catherine,
Picture to yourself my extreme surprise at receiving your late missive! I do not at all know how to account for that honour, but although the Eltons have not a family name distinguished among the nobility, you may be better acquainted with the name of Suckling. Yes, my sister, Mrs. Suckling, Miss Selina Hawkins as was, has married into one of the very greatest families in the land; – that is, her husband’s father settled at Maple Grove at no very distant time in the past, but for income, Mr. Suckling has one of the largest in all the country round Birmingham, and drives a barouche-landau. So I think you must know whom you are addressing, when you give me the favour of a letter, and a letter actually written in your ladyship’s own hand.
The subject of your letter, however, takes me by surprise quite as much as the letter itself. Agony aunt! What a very modern term for a very odious thing, to be sure. I should like to know why you take me for such a creature? No lady would write for a newspaper, far less a little country organ like the Gazette, and I trust you realize by this time, that it is a lady with whom you have to do. The Hawkins family, you know – well, there, I need not display my antecedents. That would be vulgar. Display of all kind is what I have a horror of. You may take up the Peerage yourself; and see that the Hawkins family are a very ancient Kent line, whose name originated in the word HAVOC. There has always been a famous solicitor in every generation, but do not run away with the idea that we are tradesmen, for that, my Lady Catherine, I assure you we are not. One of my cousins was raised to a Barony for his excellence in jurisprudence, and my most illustrious ancestor of all was a Pirate. Admiral Sir John Hawkins. He invented the slave trade almost singlehandedly, and was of that enterprising, pushing nature shared by all my – But stay – I did not mean to mention that. You will kindly overlook it.
And who is this Mrs. Collins of whom you speak? If I mistake not, she is a country girl whose father really was in trade, until his having a term as mayor of his little village of Meryton, gave him his knighthood – a very recent creation, too. This is not the sort of person to hold up as example, and I beg to know what Your Ladyship means by it. My husband Mr. Elton is a far superior sort of clergyman than Mr. Collins, who is, as all the world knows, a half-educated, toadying sort of fellow, and certainly not a Vicar.
Let us return, however, to the subject of Agony Aunt. I take this term to mean a sort of Dispenser of Advice. Well, I must inform you, I have never Dispensed Advice; I should be ashamed to do so unasked (although any advice I might give, would be better than any body’s). From your mentioning the profession, however, I can divine your real intention. You protest, but I see through you. I see through to your real meaning, Lady Catherine! One with my Understanding, and my Resources, will always see through other ladies, no matter how high born; and I now give you to understand that I know that you would love nothing more than to be an Agony Aunt yourself! You write to me, therefore, seeking advice as to how to begin. You have, as I can very easily discern, a vast ability to give advice of the best sort, as I do myself, which is why I can recognize this very quality in others. You would like to make a more formal, more public use of your undoubted talents, and I believe you have come to exactly the right quarter, for who can better tell you how to proceed, than I? Did I not find a situation as governess, one of the first situations in the country, for my favorite, Jane Fairfax? As it happened, she did not take it up, for her marriage prevented her; but had she gone to Mrs. Smallridge, only think how happy she would have been! So make no mistake, I can and will find a situation for you, too.
Would you care to write – anonymously, of course, merely under the by-line of “A Lady,” for the Highbury Monthly Gazette? I await your reply by return of post.
The Vicarage, Highbury
About Diana Birchall
Diana Birchall grew up in New York City, and was educated at Hunter College Elementary School, the High School of Music and Art, and C.C.N.Y, where she studied history and English literature. She has worked in the film industry for many years and is the “book person” story analyst at Warner Bros. Studios, reading novels to see if they would make movies. A lifelong student of Jane Austen, whom she calls her writing teacher, Diana is the author of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, a charming and best-selling sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Originally published by Egerton House Press in England, it is now available in a new reprint edition from Sourcebooks. Diana’s comedy pastiche In Defense of Mrs. Elton,based on characters from Jane Austen’s Emma, was published by the Jane Austen Society in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. It forms part of the “compleat” Mrs. Elton Trilogy, which is collected in the volume Mrs. Elton in America, published by Sourcebooks. Read more about Diana in this link.
- Diana’s blog: Light, Bright, and Sparkling